CHICAGO—After a recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra event featuring a cello octet, Vince McAley, sporting multiple earrings and a motorcycle jacket, listened to live DJs spinning electronic music while he swigged beer in the lobby.
“I like how experimental it was,” said Mr. McAley, a 31 year old computer technician and drummer in a rock band, of the octet’s performance in the main show, which included video clips of the composer talking about this work.
Mr. McAley admits he came to hear the DJs at the show being held at Harris Theater, a modern venue at Chicago’s Millennium Park rather than at the more traditional Chicago Symphony Center, and he said he liked the $25 entry fee, which included beer and pizza. But he says he was impressed by the octet’s performance, and might come back for more. That is music to the ears of beleaguered symphonies, which took a big hit during the recession, including large ones like in Chicago.
Now, many U.S. orchestras are recovering, partly through across the board cost cuts, like printing programs more cheaply, but also by targeting young people and nontraditional concertgoers.
They are using social media and advertising blitzes to promote concerts with relatively low ticket prices, often incorporating digital media performed by artists who leave the white tie and tails at home.
Much of the most notable recovery came for midsize orchestras with revenue of $15 million or less, which saw revenue fall nearly 10% and paid attendance drop 6% between 2008 and 2011, the last time the League of American Orchestras compiled a comprehensive report.
In places like Detroit, Indianapolis and Cleveland, budgets were balanced in 2013, and many others are back in the black for the first time since the recession. Labor disagreements also are cooling nationwide, as musicians make deals with front-office executives. Musicians at the Phoenix Symphony, for example, accepted cuts to contracts negotiated shortly before the recession hit.
“The immediate severe crush of the recession has subsided,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. Mr. Rosen said in 2009 that two-thirds of the roughly 800 orchestras they track reported deficits. By 2011, two-thirds reported surpluses, he said.
Mr. Rosen noted that a big part of the revival has been staging contemporary shows that transform concert halls into ersatz night clubs complete with drinks and mingling. These performances, custom-designed to attract younger patrons, often aren’t money makers themselves, but attract people who might not normally attend, help draw new grant money and raise the profile of the orchestra in the community. “There are some real bright spots in the middle of the country,” he said.
Cleveland has introduced an evening “Fridays at 7” program, which starts early and features hip guest artists such as banjoist Béla Fleck.
College students can even make up about a quarter of the audience at regular programming, the orchestra says. “Innovation comes out of budget pressure,” said Ana Papakhian, spokeswoman for the Cleveland Orchestra. “Change is the key to orchestra success in the future, we can’t rely on subscriptions.”
Jim Ward, the CEO of the Phoenix Symphony, said he has balanced the organization’s budget for the first time in a decade, using marketing skills and sensibilities honed in his old job as president of video game maker LucasArts. His shake-up has helped lead Phoenix to a roughly $3 million surplus this year. A program called “Parties of Note” brings musicians to homes and mansions across the state, cultivating concertgoers with intimate settings and gourmet dinners in a page taken from political campaigns that host home fundraisers.
The Phoenix Symphony also is planning a gala concert next year in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the city’s Nascar racetrack, which could include a Nascar driver conducting the national anthem and an entire program based on automobile themes.
“We want to break the mold of a traditional symphony,” adding to the subscription model and a calendar filled with composers like Haydn, Brahms and Bach, Mr. Ward said.
The Minnesota Orchestra is among those still struggling. Management locked out the unionized musicians, who have been organizing their own independent shows. The uproar has led to the resignation of its music director and tension with Minneapolis city officials, as the labor dispute drags into a second year.
The Chicago Symphony, one of the largest in the U.S., with an annual budget of $74 million, was slammed by the recession just as it was recovering from multi-million-dollar deficits in the early 2000s. Since then, the company has accelerated its nontraditional programming, with events like “Beyond the Score,” which incorporates video, theater and graphic design to better explain compositions. It also launched an online magazine earlier this month—all tactics that have pushed deficits down to less than $200,000 in 2013.
Ultimately, symphonies are staking much of their recovery on turning the leather-jacketed Mr. McAley into another John Mitchell, a 30-year-old analyst at a nonprofit, who came to a recent Chicago Symphony show decked out in a natty blazer and was sipping wine before the performance.
Mr. Mitchell began attending concerts as a graduate student, lured by discounted student tickets, and has since become a subscriber. “I went from ‘can’t afford tickets’ to ‘I’m hooked for life,’ ” he said.
Write to Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org